Aston Villa 2 Blackburn Rovers 0: Controversial penalty lifts Villa after return to past

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The Independent Online

For 40 minutes it was as if Villa Park's summer revolution had never happened. In a match of empty promise and empty seats, even Martin O'Neill found little to animate him in the technical area. Then a linesman's flag changed everything, angering Mark Hughes and his Blackburn side while helping Aston Villa to rejoin the top six.

A cross by Chris Sutton, who made a productive full debut against the club where he won the Premiership, struck Andre Oojer as he jumped to block the ball. Richard West, one of referee Howard Webb's assistants, signalled that the centre-back had handled. After much debate, Gareth Barry's penalty - the seventh Villa have received this season - brooked no argument.

Juan Pablo Angel exploited defensive slackness to double the advantage shortly after half-time. Without, for once, looking conspicuously better than they did under David O'Leary's management last season, Villa duly eased to their first victory in five matches, at the same time condemning a jaded-looking Blackburn to a third consecutive League defeat.

"We felt the penalty was a turning point," Hughes said. "It was a poor decision by the referee and his assistant. At that point we were quite comfortable and looking to get into half-time all-square. It was a big decision and the officials are paid to get them right. There was another occasion late on when [Stiliyan] Petrov moved his arm into the ball in the area, and we weren't given anything."

Hughes' side have now had six penalties against them, the highest top-flight total. Hughes stopped short of claiming referees were victimising the smaller clubs, but added: "I can't stand before you and say none of those spot-kicks was merited. But I can say he didn't get this one right. I understand these things happen quickly, but the assistant was probably the only person in the ground who thought it was hand-ball."

O'Neill arrived fresh from studying video replays of both the Oojer and Petrov incidents. "The penalty could well have been the pivotal moment," the Villa manager acknowledged. "If you give one, you have to give the other. People have said it was a soft one, but I've seen them given."

Villa's superiority was beyond dispute, however. Blackburn forced just one save from Thomas Sorensen, who tipped over David Bentley's shot moments before the controversy broke. And in Martin Laursen - playing only because Liam Ridgewell reported sick - Gabby Agbonlahor and Sutton, Villa boasted the game's most influential performers.

From the start, it was evident that Blackburn had not recovered from their exertions against Basle in the Uefa Cup on Thursday. A shot by Petrov was deflected for a corner kick, from which Laursen fired wide. But after Agbonlahor's goalbound volley had thudded into Tugay, an impasse ensued which saw the atmosphere dip to library levels.

Barry's goal stirred the crowd from their slumbers, although after Villa had missed three of their previous six penalties O'Neill admitted, tongue in cheek, that he might have happily settled for a corner.

Six minutes into the second half the Holte End had another goal to savour beneath their noses. Zurab Khizanishvili, under pressure after a short pass from Michael Gray, was dispossessed with embarrassing ease by Angel. The Colombian advanced before driving his sixth goal this season into the far corner of the net. Blackburn, whose next Premiership match is against Manchester United, could not turn late pressure into a scoring opportunity.

This was an important win for Villa after their first defeat, at Liverpool the previous weekend, as well as for the aspirations of O'Neill and the new owner, Randy Lerner. Electronic screens repeatedly displayed the logo "A club committed to equality everywhere", yet a seventh draw in 11 games, which looked likely until the intervention of Messrs Webb and West, might have suggested they were interpreting it too literally.

They now return to Chelsea, scene of one of their more impressive draws, for a Carling Cup tie on Wednesday. If yesterday's contest was reminiscent of last season, free coaches for 6,000 supporters, paid for by Lerner, will be pleasing proof of the new era.

Goals: Barry pen (40) 1-0; Angel (51) 2-0.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Hughes, Mellberg, Laursen, Bouma; Agbonlahor, McCann, Petrov, Barry; Angel, Sutton (Baros, 90). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Davis, Cahill, Osbourne.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Neill (Henchoz, 85), Khizanishvili, Oojer, Gray; Bentley, Mokoena, Tugay (Peter, 62), Pedersen; Nonda, McCarthy (Jeffers, 62). Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Jeffers, McEveley.

Referee: H Webb (S Yorkshire).

Booked: Aston Villa Sutton. Blackburn Oojer, Khizanishvili, Mokoena.

Man of the match: Laursen.

Attendance: 30,089.

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